I recently took my kids ages 9 and 11 to London for the first time and had success with this itinerary. I’ve learned to not overschedule and to leave time for doing cartwheels on the vast open lawns of Greenwich or climbing the structures at a playground we spotted from the top of the London Eye.
Also, if your family is like mine, they will probably take longer than you would think to get out of the house in the morning. I wouldn’t make a reservation for anything super early in the day, even if you think you’ll be up early because of the time difference. Also, avoid traveling during rush hour—stay put until at least 9am on work days and try not to travel around 5pm. It’s also good to know the times for regularly scheduled tours at places you’re visiting so you don’t have to kill time, and if you miss one tour because someone couldn’t find their shoes or you walked in the wrong direction, you’ll have a back-up plan.
If you arrive in the morning from an overnight flight and are staying in my recommended hotel, I suggest settling in, grabbing lunch, and heading in the afternoon to either the Natural History Museum or Science Museum, both in South Kensington and both free. Have an early dinner and a long sleep.
Get to the Tower of London in time for the earliest Beefeater tour you can manage. These gentlemen give amusing and engaging tours of this fascinating place. After the tour, see the Crown Jewels, the armor rooms, and dungeon before lunch.
Because we live in Greenwich, Connecticut, I wanted to take my family to its namesake, Greenwich, England. There are lots of ways to get there but I chose the long way because I like trying new things. Right by the Tower of London, across from the Tower Hill Tube station, is the Tower Gateway DLR station. We took this above-ground rail line to the Royal Victoria station and walked a couple of blocks to the Emirates Royal Docks terminal for the Emirates Air Line. Not a plane but a cable car, this is a fun way to cross the Thames to Greenwich. The terminus is in North Greenwich so we walked to the waterfront and hopped on a boat for the short ride to Greenwich. Once there, we spent some time in the museum where the kids tried on a knight’s helmet, hopped into a bunk bed, and played games. We strolled around the historic buildings, the kids ran around on the large open lawns, and we had a relaxed meal in the Old Brewery restaurant, which is child friendly. We didn’t actually see the meridian marking Greenwich Mean Time as we had run out of steam and it was a bit of a walk and had an admission fee. We took the Tube, in the charming little town of Greenwich, back to the hotel.
My 11-year-old surprised me by saying that Westminster Abbey was her favorite experience in London. We took a 10:30am tour but it’s also possible to rent a headset tour. I strongly recommend a guide of some sort because there is so much history in this building, if you wander around without any direction, you’ll miss so much. Don’t leave without seeing the cloister. If you want a simple, inexpensive lunch, ask someone who works at Westminster Abbey to point out which building is the Methodist Central Hall. Cross the street to it and go down the stairs to Wesley’s Café, a cafeteria.
The London Eye is just across the Thames, a few minutes’ walk away. A head’s up that if you’re using an attractions’ pass, you will probably have to go inside to the ticket booth to exchange it for actual tickets. OK, I will say it: I was disappointed by the London Eye. I do not think it’s worth the money. We waited in a 15-minute line (twice because we didn’t know we had to exchange our pass for tickets), the car holds 25 people so it was crowded, and it took absolutely forever to make one complete circle. That’s all you get – one rotation—and it takes 30 minutes. We didn’t feel like we were moving at all and it was boring after the first five minutes. We spotted a playground from the air and the kids let off some steam there; they enjoyed the playground as much as the ride. There is also a carousel in view of the wheel. If this description doesn’t entice you to ride the UK’s number one paid attraction, then maybe you’ll want to go to the London Aquarium or Shrek Experience; both are adjacent to it.
One general area has a bunch of family-friendly attractions. Madame Tussaud’s is cheesy, crowded, and expensive but…it was much more fun than we expected. I didn’t include it in our original itinerary but my kids saw promotional information about it and asked to go. The sheer scope of people represented is enormous: Hollywood celebrities, super heros, historical figures, and British royalty, of course. You can jump on ET’s bike, get in the Millennium Falcon cockpit with Chewbacca, and sit in your own swivel chair on The Voice set.
The British Museum has a highlights tour, a tour geared for kids, and a headset tour. A fantastic candy store, Kingdom of Sweets, and one of the world’s most famous toy stores, Hamley’s, are both in the same general area.
If you are still in this area around 5pm, I highly recommend a visit to St. Paul’s for Evensong. It’s a short (45 minutes) service, there’s no charge, and you can wear what you wish. To be in such a breathtaking building and hear the glorious music and choir is a transporting experience. My family was skeptical but my husband, who is not a churchgoer, was truly moved.
Allot an entire day to fully experience the Warner Brothers’ Studio Tour, The Making of Harry Potter. You will need to book admission as far ahead as possible as daily timed tickets sell out months in advance.
The entire family really enjoyed a food walking tour with Eating Europe in East London, an area we wouldn’t have traveled to otherwise. The concept is walking from restaurant to restaurant and along the way learning about the neighborhood’s history. We sampled items including a bacon sandwich, cheese, fish and chips, and a pudding, all with high accolades. It is a four-hour tour, which sounds long, but if you have the time and inclination, is a wonderful investment to dive deeper into a neighborhood.
In October, Mary Poppins returns to the West End in a Disney-Cameron Macintosh production. It’s been staged in London and New York before and if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it with your kids, book your seats now.
Organize a day’s activities so that they are in the same general vicinity. London is very spread out and you don’t want to drag kids all over the city tiring and boring them before you even start your day. It’s also important that your hotel be near a Tube stop for the same reason.
If you have planned your trip at least a month in advance, order Visitor Oyster Cards for getting around on public transportation. You order online and receive your discounted transportation cards by mail: No waiting in lines, no figuring out how much it will be to get from X to Y. We used them on everything from the Tube to the train to the Potter studios to the Emirates Air Line cable car. Kids under 11 ride free and those 11-18 are half price.
Also, try not to travel during rush hours–it makes a huge difference with stress levels and safety not be crushed and to be able to sit on a train. Also, travel fares are higher during rush hours, so your Oyster Cards will last longer.
There are several attractions passes to save money on admission. I chose the London Explorer Pass because it covered the places we wanted to go and worked for our itinerary. Also check Groupon for deals–you can often even get the London Explorer Pass through Groupon.
A fantastic apartment hotel in a central location two blocks from a Tube station is No1 The Mansions by Mansley. On Earl’s Court Road with a plethora of restaurants, pubs, and supermarkets, this hotel offers different apartment configurations so you can spread out, a fully equipped kitchen, and even a free loaner smart phone. It’s right on the Tube line from Heathrow, too: We deplaned, followed signs for the Tube station, and used our Oyster Cards to take the blue Piccadilly Line right to Earl’s Court.